Posted on October 2, 2019

Federal Judge Rules Harvard’s Admissions Policies Do Not Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants

Camille G. Caldera et al., Harvard Crimson, October 2, 2019

Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions policies do not illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled Tuesday.

The ruling brings an end to this stage of the lawsuit filed against the University by anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions in 2014. SFFA alleged that the College’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian American applicants by holding them to higher standards. Burroughs, however, found that Harvard’s use of race in its admissions process is legal.


In addition to arguing that Harvard’s policies are discriminatory, SFFA contended that the College had artificially capped the number of students from certain racial groups and had failed to seriously consider alternative race-blind strategies for admitting a diverse class — practices which the Supreme Court previously deemed illegal.

Burroughs determined the University was not liable on all four counts of alleged wrongdoing: intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans, engaging in racial balancing, using race as a determinative factor in admissions decisions, and inadequately exploring race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity.

{snip} SFFA President Edward J. Blum said in a press release Tuesday that his organization plans to appeal the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Students for Fair Admissions is disappointed that the court has upheld Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies,” Blum said in the press release. “We believe that the documents, emails, data analysis and depositions SFFA presented at trial compellingly revealed Harvard’s systematic discrimination against Asian-American applicants.”

In her legal opinion, Burroughs disagreed with the allegations of discrimination, finding “no evidence of any discriminatory animus or conscious prejudice” on the part of Harvard’s admissions officers. In particular, Burroughs wrote that admissions officers’ testimonies were “consistent, unambiguous, and convincing.”


Much of Burroughs’s judgment lauded the benefits of diversity in higher education. She agreed with Harvard’s claims that only race-conscious admissions policies could achieve a favorable level of diversity at the College.

“Harvard has demonstrated that no workable and available race-neutral alternatives would allow it to achieve a diverse student body while still maintaining its standards for academic excellence,” she wrote.

Despite siding with Harvard, Burroughs wrote that Harvard’s policies could be improved. {snip}


Burroughs wrote that she believes the College employs a strong example of a race-conscious admissions policy.


Though Harvard prevailed in the district court case, the College’s admissions process is still subject to a separate investigation by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. The DOJ opened its investigation at least as early as 2017 and filed a statement of interest in the SFFA lawsuit in August 2018 alleging that Harvard practices “unlawful racial discrimination” against Asian American applicants.


Among the findings was the revelation that Harvard’s own internal research office concluded in 2013 that the College’s race-conscious policy yields “negative effects” for Asian Americans. The University’s Office for Institutional Research found that Asian American applicants consistently receive lower personal ratings — numerical scores based on abstract qualities like “humor” and “grit” — from admissions officers.